Sunday should have been a very special Sunday, for Wesley Day – 24th May, fell on Aldersgate Sunday this year. But as with most things at present our celebrations are somewhat muted. Both days commemorate and celebrate the famous conversion experience of John Wesley, Aldersgate Sunday is the Sunday nearest 24th May. Charles had a similar experience a few days before, but John being the bossy elder brother is the one we always remember.
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Wesley Day is always a time to remember what Methodism has contributed to the ecumenical life of the church in our world today. Fortunately, the Wesleyan tradition is ecumenical, itself the child of other streams of Christianity, and one which invites us to be formed in relation to the depth and breadth of Christian thought. All this to say, the theology of love found in the Wesleyan tradition is the culmination of previous theologies in the Roman, Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican traditions. Wesleyan theology not only draws from the ecumenism of the past, but has also informed the theology of love in the ecumenical movement of today.
In addition to the breadth of its theology of love, we also find a depth such that many rightly describe Wesleyan theology as a theology of love. In demonstrable ways we see this.
First, with respect to theology itself. The fact that neither John nor Charles Wesley spent their lives in the academic circles of Oxford University has caused some to discount them as theologians, but that is a both a bogus claim, and one which reveals a too narrow view of the word theologian. Their media were different (e.g. sermons, hymns, treatises and letters) but their message has theological substance (As an aside I believe they would have relished engaging in the social media of today. Zoom , Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, all would have been grist to the Wesley’s evangelical mill!) And their message was rooted in the two great commandments — the love of God and the love of your neighbour as your self.
Second, love is seen with respect to the ministries that characterized Methodism. One of the guiding mantras for John and Charles (and other Methodists) was “faith working by love,” a conviction akin to St. James, who wrote that “faith when not accompanied by actions is dead.” (James 2:17). John Wesley called it “practical divinity,” — what we (and the larger Christian tradition) now refer to as social holiness.
The study of Wesleyan spirituality has shown how much John and Charles (and the Methodist movement) connected with, benefitted from and expressed the many theologies of love which preceded them. A number of academic studies have come to believe that they see Methodism as a ‘Third Order’, akin to what we have seen in the Franciscan order — a movement rooted in and expressive of love.
Love as the cornerstone of faith and life has generated this principle throughout the Wesleyan world, J. Kenneth Grider has stated that “Methodists move toward people who need help.” The help given is not generated solely or primarily by a sense of obligation or duty, but rather from compassion born of love — a sense of love rooted in the person and work of God, who in the Holy Trinity loves the whole world (John 3:16).
God bless and stay safe,
On June 21st I am due to give a sermon on the environment at Mickleton in the South Warwickshire Circuit. This probably wont happen but I’ve written the sermon and here it is-the first of my Covid-19 sermons. I am offering it you sisters and brothers for critical comment and reflection.
It’s not what I was expecting. What I was expecting was a series of extreme weather events, floods and rising concern about carbon in the atmosphere. All these things may yet happen but perhaps the most important message for these times is expect the unexpected.
But let’s be honest, it should not have been unexpected. There have been many warnings-the government even ran a simulation exercise in 2016. Looking back further I can remember having my temperature checked while passing through Hong Kong airport few years ago. But my diary with all its crossings out reminds me that this was not part of my expectations for 2020.
So for me to attempt any sort of theological reflection on where we are now might be thought in me to be a presumptuous task. That phrase “a presumptuous task” comes from a very famous old book-one from my lockdown reading list. On this list are books that I’ve always meant to read but somehow I’ve never got round to including translations of the pre-Christian Latin and Greek classics. The poems that Boris Johnson likes to quote.
Take Vergil’s famous poem-the Aeneid-an account of how the hero Aeneas flees from Troy when it falls to the Greeks and gathering a band of refugees sets out to found a new empire in Italy-this is Rome’s foundation myth. They have many adventures and fight many battles. These battles are described in extraordinarily bloodthirsty detail. The gods watch over all this intervening from time to time on side or another, changing the weather on a whim and receiving the sacrifices of the warriors. Bulls, birds and lambs are slain on blood soaked altars on almost every page. Wine is poured out; trophies are laid on altars and as for the gods they look on smiling when they are not at war with each other. This is a religious world dedicated to power and victory in which courage is the highest virtue and in which nature and the power of the gods are easily confused.
How different is Christianity’s take on the world! Central to our ideas about the world is that God is loving and that creation is an expression of that love. To live wisely and well within our world is to live lovingly-to go with the grain of the universe as has been recently said. To live well is to live a life of service to others in humility, freedom and joy. Contrast that with the world of pagan Greece and Rome as described by Vergil and Homer. Christianity as St Maximus the Confessor said is an entirely new way of being human.
The atheist philosopher Nietzsche who began his scholarly career with these classics described Christianity as a religion for slaves. He had a point-a good point. When preachers suggest to you that living in a Christian manner is plain common sense be very wary. Similarly there is a tendency sometimes to suggest that all faiths unite around common values. Again be wary!
No Christianity and its older brother Judaism represents a revolution in human affairs-the oldest and the best. –from a religion which honours power and violence to one that affirms self-giving love. Jesus said: I am among you as one who serves. That was and is a counter-cultural thought. But that’s why Christianity represents a revolution in human affairs. And as Christian consciousness fades in our culture as part of the process of secularisation we do well to affirm our credentials as a counter-cultural revolutionary movement. We should affirm our calling to be part of an entirely new way of being human and not relapse into being pagans-especially not pagans supercharged with sophisticated technology and engineering skills.
But what is all this to us? And in particular what is all this to us when we think about the environment. I see our needful response under three headings:
To acknowledge God’s love and his gift to us of creation.
To make a humble and grateful response to that love
To receive all this in joy and share that joy with others.
Just a few words about each
God’s love. And God saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good. Of course to write in this way is to take a religious standpoint rather than a scientific one but without a spiritual or ethical outlook we’d be lost if we tried to make sense of the world. Listen to Thomas Trehearne:
You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world…till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God as misers do in gold and Kings in sceptres you never enjoy the world. Or I could have quoted Wordsworth or Gerard Manley Hopkins or any number of Psalms.
Humility-Humility doesn’t get a very good press these days. It’s dismissed as a virtue for monks. Modern people obsessed with consumerism and individualism prefer to imagine anything good as “all about me”. Christianity is quite different. It’s about love but not self-love instead it’s all about love of the others.
The implications for the environment are important. We should live within nature, of which we ourselves are a part, as if we are its servants rather than its masters.
Most of our environmental problems arise from seeing nature as our tool-a source of items to be extracted and put to use for the sake of our comfort and pleasure. You and I and all our fellow humans have got ourselves into a bad place because we see ourselves as somehow like gods-super humans. Everything that exists doesn’t exist in its own right but for ourselves alone. This persuasive way of thinking can be seen in the media every day in the form of a narcissistic obsession with my rights, my property, and my pleasures. This is no way to be happy in Jesus.
Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit as Paul reminds us-an occasion for happiness and delight when we conform to the order of God in the world-when we turn away from our self-centred concerns and consider the lilies, the birds of the air and the fullness of God’s work in creation.
Such joy is not limited tour own experiences of happiness and delight but extends to the whole creation as it looks forward to freedom from its bondage to decay. Again this is Paul’s vision. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.
As I said at the outset it wasn’t what I was expecting. I had fondly imagined that infectious diseases were nothing to do with me-that’s all about history. But I was wrong. This is about me and it is about the environment. The warnings were there-Ebola, Marburg, SARs. We’ve been creating the conditions for this: frenetic urbanisation, destruction of natural habitats, mass air travel.
This has been a warning but it’s also been a source of unexpected joy. Bird song, clear air, the chance to really feel and smell the new springtime all around us. We have accustomed ourselves to eco-alienated habitats but all is not lost when we find ourselves beginning to notice and feel a real kinship with the world of nature.
Let’s be realistic but also hopeful. We’ve had no end of a lesson. It could do us no end of good.
This coming Sunday is Pentecost when the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the first Christians. The key text for today (Acts 2:1-21) begins by declaring that the disciples were all together in one place. Alas we are not all together in one place this year indeed we are all over the place but notwithstanding that I hope we are not all at sea!
The text speaks of the gift of the Spirit in terms of fire-a fire of love-not one blast but tongues of fire-to each disciple a flame-a gift or as we might say a charisma of the Holy Spirit. All God’s people are charismatics. The Church is a charismatic community.
The gift of the Spirit is a gift of diversity-to each disciple his own flame. Not only does the Holy Spirit make us all one he makes us each different. Life together in the Church is a world of joy and blessing as we enrich each other with the gifts entrusted to us and receive from others the gifts entrusted to them.
But the gift of the Holy Spirit is also a gift of unity. The Holy Spirit makes the many to be one body in Christ. Confusion and misunderstanding of the kind described in the story of the tower of Babel (Genesis11) is ended in the dramatic manner described in Acts 2. Henceforth the believers are united in heart and soul and have all things in common.
St Paul writes that where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. This could be read as a warning not to restrict our understanding of the Spirit to rigid and simplistic definitions.
I was rather surprised, indeed shocked, when I received a mailing some years ago which advertised this service:
“A ministry to women using beauty therapy and pampering to leave women refreshed, relaxed and with a renewed experience of the Holy Spirit.”
Here the Holy Spirit has become nothing more than that which gives us a personal buzz-this is a long way from the Spirit which Jesus sends. That Spirit as the church understands it is not all about me it is instead about igniting a fire of self-giving love within our hearts and shared in true fellowship not only within the people of God but with all our neighbours.
Of course the Holy Spirit has no clear form-we can’t grasp it or make a picture of it as we can with the person of Jesus. It’s much more like the air we breathe-we enjoy its presence, we even bemoan its absence but it gives life to the Church and points us to Jesus whose gift it is.
Lectionary Readings for today:
1 Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11
Reflections on these readings can be found here.
This coming Sunday, May 24th, is the anniversary of John Wesley’s conversion and an important date in the Methodist calendar.
There have been a number of famous Christian conversion experiences beginning with that of Paul described in Acts 9 and referred to again in Galatians 1 verse 17. Perhaps the most famous in Christian history is that of Augustine in Milan described in Book 8 of his Confessions. There he was sitting in the garden of his house feeling anguished and distressed when he heard a child next door calling out: “Pick it up, Read it, Pick it up, Read it. His mood changed at once and he took into his hands a copy of Paul’s letters and opening it at random read Romans 13 verses 13/14. And the rest as they say is history.
Augustine’s confessions is one of the great books best read in a modern translation of which there are many. My favourite is that of Sarah Ruden published in 2018. Try it. It could change your life. The account of his conversion experience has provided the template for other such experiences including perhaps that of John Wesley himself.
Wesley’s account of what happened on the evening of May 24th 1738 begins with his attending evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral-a good start-but then he goes to a Methodist meeting where one was reading from Luther’s introduction to his commentary on Romans. During the reading his heart was strangely warmed as he put it.
On the following day he went to another meeting (You can’t stop these people!) which he addressed on the subject of his conversion stating that until the previous evening he had not been a proper Christian at all. The leader of the meeting who obviously knew Wesley well was sceptical about this and told him that if he hadn’t been a proper Christian before May 24th he had given a very good impression of being one.
Somebody said to me once. Your problem Peter is that you never meet anyone because you are always going to meetings. (This was before I met the lady who subsequently became my wife-at a Methodist meeting!)
Other prominent Christians down the ages have testified to special experiences – St Thomas Aquinas the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages had such an experience at the end of his life and resolved to write no more. –which was something of a disappointment to those who admired his mind. But some Christians, perhaps most, have discounted such moments. Martin Luther when challenged as to how he knew he was a Christian simply replied: I have been baptized. That’s a good answer.
Heart-warming experiences are not peculiar to Christians –atheists and followers of other faiths have them too-some atheists have even been converted from Christianity by such experiences.
But I would not wish to be misunderstood. Special experiences can be blessings:
Many of us have been deeply moved by particular pieces of music –the choruses from Bach’s St Matthew Passion for instance or special hymns. Charles Wesley’s hymn “O thou who camest from above” never fails to move me-even to bring a tear to the eye. Provided it’s set to the right tune of course! This is what some Orthodox writers call the gift of tears. Then there are what I would call St Martin experiences-an encounter with someone in real need-causing within us an overflowing feeling of love-leading to action. Many of us have had experiences like that but we shouldn’t boast of them. Paul who seems to have been no stranger to mystical experiences preferred to speak only of his weaknesses and to insist: Let him who boasts boast only in the Lord.
Special experiences mean a lot to people and such people like to recall these special moments. But everyone is different. God speaks in many languages and through all manner of media. When Paul had his special experience on the Damascus Road those who were with him at the time heard nothing. Those who were with Wesley listening to Martin Luther’s comments on Romans remained unmoved. When I tried to replicate the moment by reading the same passage to a group of modern Methodists in Bristol everyone was thoroughly bored. It’s the same in the Holy Land-some are really excited by the Garden Tomb, others by the Sea of Galilee or the desert. In these things we are all different and in our differences we should rejoice.
I suspect many of you like me often stop in the middle of what you are doing and think, ‘What day is it today?’ Lockdown has changed our concepts of time and we are no longer governed by watch or calendar but by mealtimes and bedtimes.
Most of us have been living a different normal for several weeks and time now has become a construct with fuzzy boundaries.
One of the books I am reading in lock down, apart from those weighty theological tomes that ministers read everyday (!) is a book by popular TV science presenter Brian Cox and his colleague Jeff Forshaw. The book is entitled ‘Why does E=mc2? (and why should we care?)’ In the book they aim to explain how Albert Einstein developed the Theory of General Relativity and his famous equation in terms that non Research Physicist can understand.
In April scientists from NASA and The Max Plank Institute discovered more evidence to support Einstein’s theory. A star called S2 orbits a black hole (Sagittarius A*) at the centre of our galaxy, The Milky Way, at speeds of 11,000,000mph making it the fastest known ballistic object in the universe. But it was the motion of the star in orbit that intrigued them. It orbits in a classic Keplerian elliptical and forward motion, but rotates over time to form a rosette shape. (If you are of a certain generation you may have had a Spirograph as a birthday or Christmas present so you know the type of pattern I am talking about.)
Einstein introduced the concept of the space-time continuum in his theory, linking the three dimensions of space with time which had been thought to be independent of each other. For Einstein, the larger the mass of the object, the more it bends the fabric of the space-time continuum and the stronger its effects on nearby objects. So the slower you move through space the faster you move through time. (Trust me on this one, the maths is fiendishly difficult. Well not that difficult but it is still maths and so is still fiendish!)
Interesting you may say, or perhaps not, but what has this got to do with our faith today? S2 orbits around the black hole much like our faith orbits around God. The closer we are to God the greater effect He has on our faith, sending us off in a forward motion until we are drawn back to him again and like S2 our path to and from God is never the same. For our experience of God and our experience of life will change us.
Today’s lockdown serves to remind us that the God we worship not only created time but created ‘our’ time. The writer of Ecclesiastes sums up the concept of time with God beautifuly in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Time is not a device we measure the length of our lives by but is a gift from God to use in His service. We should not ask how long did somebody live but how well did they live.
In these days of ‘fuzzy’ time where March lasted an eternity and April zipped by, rather than try and count the days until things get back to normal, ask God to guide you in using this time wisely.
God bless and stay safe,
Thy Kingdom Come App is now available to download free to your smartphone or tablet from playstore . Give it a try!! Daily podcasts from Tom Wright, prayer ideas, readings and family podcasts for everyday 21st – 31st May. Will keep everyone thinking and occupied!
Why not join together in praying on the 10 days for at least 10 mins at 10am each day from 21st to 31st May.
Everyone is welcome to join us tonight at 6:30pm. The service this week is being broadcast via YouTube and can also be accessed by the Sutton Park Methodist Facebook Page. The preacher tonight is Revd Stephen Froggatt and Revd Malcolm Oliver will be breaking bread.
There is also a Circuit Youth and Junior Church Service at 4pm led by Deacon Rachel Thomas-Prasad. Please contact Malcolm for Zoom details.